Evasive Maneuvers: Detailing the Pursuit of a WWI Draft Dodger


On July 23, 1973, the day the Vietnam War ended, the Selective Service closed the draft -- that process by which the armed forces were staffed whenever there were insufficient numbers of volunteers. Since then, the concept of a "draft dodger" -- one who chose to illegally refuse the call to duty -- has drifted into the shadows of memory.

If the phrase "draft dodger" resonates at all, it's probably an image of a hippie, driving a VW van in a cloud of pot smoke, the eight-track blasting CSNY, sneaking across the Canadian border rather than report for service during Vietnam War.

Before that conflict -- which was a perceived by many as a different kind of war, fought under dubious conditions and for suspect and political/financial motives -- being drafted was regarded as an honorable responsibility in defense of our country during what history records as necessary if tragic conflicts, and most of those drafted responded accordingly.

A draft dodger during earlier conflicts -- World Wars I and II, particularly -- was regarded with scorn. Some even gained national notoriety, but none so much as Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, who was convicted of draft dodging during World War I. During his prison stay, Bergdoll convinced the U.S. Army to grant temporary release because he claimed to have hidden a valuable cache of gold during the war.

He was in fact allowed to go after the treasure -- and promptly escaped for two decades. The overseas exile of Bergdoll, a member of the Bergdoll brewing family and an aviator who trained with the Wright Brothers, is a remarkable story involving congressional investigations and manhunts by various law enforcement and veterans groups.

If this true-life adventure sounds perfect for a book, well, New London's Dirk Langeveld thought so, too. A marketing editor at The Day, Langeveld wrote and published "The Artful Dodger -- The 20-Year Pursuit of World War I Draft Dodger Grover Cleveland Bergdoll." Langeveld also writes the "Downfall Dictionary," a blog about American political scandal, and has contributed to numerous pictorial books about local history.

By email, Langeveld recently answered five questions about Grover Cleveland Bergdoll and "The Artful Dodger." Responses have been edited for space.

Q: Is it accurate to suggest "The Artful Dodger" was a project that sprang from your "Downfall Dictionary" blog, and what explains your fascination with political scandal?

A: Yes, I was looking into one figure and stumbled across a much more interesting one. I started "The Downfall Dictionary" at a time when a fair number of politicians were getting caught up in scandals and started the blog after browsing past American political scandals to see how flagrant or bizarre they were.

Early on, I came across Thomas Miller, who was the Alien Property Custodian -- an official responsible for seizing property and assets in the U.S. belonging to Germans or other enemy nationals during World War I, and later overseeing the return or distribution of these assets after the war. Miller was ultimately convicted of taking kickbacks, but in researching him, I also learned he had made the questionable move of declaring Bergdoll and his mother "enemies of the state" and seizing their property. Once I learned about Grover's story, I was hooked.

Q: Bergdoll's is an amazing story. But knowing that ours is a fast-paced and often self-absorbed society with a collective short attention span, what made you think Bergdoll would resonate today?

A: When I initially browsed through the news archives to learn more about Grover's case, I was amazed how closely he was connected to various historical episodes. The story encompasses the period between World War I and World War II, topics which tend to be popular among history readers, and also brings in some aviation and automotive history.

The story also has quite a few bizarre twists and turns which I found fascinating. Among other things, Grover escaped two kidnapping attempts, mulled an attempt to fly back to the United States after the Spirit of St. Louis flight, and kept people guessing for several years about where -- or if -- he had buried a fortune in gold while on the run. There's something for everyone!

Q: There are plenty of bestselling novels out there based on true crimes. In that spirit, did you ever think of writing this as a novel?

A: Whenever I tell someone about the book and summarize some of Grover's life, they usually stop me at some point and ask, "Wait, is this fiction?" This is definitely one of those stranger-than-fiction kind of stories, so I don't think it ever crossed my mind that it would work better as a novel.

Q: At any point in your research, did you find anything that threw you a narrative curve or maybe just blew your mind?

A: There were two kidnapping attempts on Grover while he was in Europe, which the U.S. military denounced as irresponsible actions by a few overzealous soldiers. So, while I was digging through some documents at the National Archives, I was pretty surprised to find a document from an Army official, dated a few weeks before the first incident, suggesting that an attempt to "shanghai" Grover might be useful as a last resort.

Q: Did you run into patches where it was difficult to find available material on sections of Bergdoll's life or activities?

A: Grover's case was splashed across the headlines for decades, but I found only one other book written about it; that was published in the '70s and left considerable gaps in the story, since it focused mostly on his draft evasion and the ensuing fallout.

Also, the last two decades of Grover's life were pretty sparse on details, as he stayed out of the public eye. But in the Pennsylvania Historical Society, I found an unpublished manuscript by Grover's oldest son detailing this time as well as other family history. It was pretty thrilling to find a resource that offered so much insight.

This article is written by Rick Koster from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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